In Waco Independent School District’s effort to protect five schools from potential closure by the state next year, two things are now certain: Whatever turnaround plan the district develops will include a blended learning model, and the deadline to submit a plan to the state is March 1, Superintendent A. Marcus Nelson announced at a board meeting Thursday night.

“As I said last month, our faculties and staff are working so hard to meet state standard this year,” Nelson said. “But we’re down to our last semester. We fervently believe our campuses are capable of exceeding all state and federal standards. We believe that with everything that’s in us. This is an adult issue, and our campuses and our curriculum teams are very laser-like focused on accomplishing this district goal.”

Alta Vista Elementary School, Brook Avenue Elementary School, J.H. Hines Elementary School, G.W. Carver Middle School and Indian Spring Middle School have each failed state academic standards for five consecutive years or more, which leaves them open to closure if they do not pass this year.

Originally, the district expected to have to have turnaround plans approved by January for state approval by February, Nelson said during community meetings in October and early November about the issue. If the schools meet academic accountability standards in May, the improvement plan won’t matter, Nelson said.

He said people have told him outside of the community meetings they feel Waco ISD is backed into a corner.

“There’s some truth to that,” Nelson said. “If our campuses don’t make it, according to the Texas Education Agency representatives, we really only have three choices: close the schools, allow the TEA to replace the board of trustees or identify a partner, or an entity that can basically operate those campuses. That’s it. We’ve had some discussions about making sure those are our only options, and we want to emphasize to the public that that’s it.

“We can look at getting new campus IDs, but at the end of the day, we can close the schools, get a board or find a partner. In my humble opinion, the TEA wants us to partner with a charter network. They’ve also allowed, through Senate Bill 1882, us to explore partnering with members of our own community that are local nonprofit organizations, and that’s why we’ve been exploring that partnership and how it would function.”

A significant part of Prosper Waco’s efforts has been focused on supporting Waco ISD and other local schools, executive director Matthew Polk said in an email to the Tribune-Herald last month.

“Our board has told Dr. Nelson that we’re ready to step up that partnership however needed to serve students on the campuses that could be closed if they fail to meet state standards this school year,” Polk wrote.

While part of the work to develop a plan has involved getting feedback from community members, Nelson said the other part has been about finding strategies to improve the quality of instruction.

“We’re going to implement this through what we call a blended learning model. We’ll be taking advantage of our technical advances and really making a commitment to our state-of-the-art hardware and software and unprecedented professional development for our teachers and staff,” Nelson said.

The model will help improve literacy skills and augment achievement in other core areas, he said. With only 54 percent of Waco ISD’s third-graders reading at their grade level or higher, district officials have said improving literacy is the most important academic challenge of the next few years.

“(The blended learning model) better meets the needs of individualizing learning for each kid,” Nelson said Thursday. “Teachers can match each student with instructional materials based on his or her reading level. As a result, students at different levels are appropriately challenged in the same classroom at the same time.”

The district’s curriculum department has already trained all principals on the blending learning system, and later this month, officials will train about 600 teachers, Nelson said.

“Literacy is the fundamental challenge we have in our school system, and we’re trying to address that issue aggressively,” Nelson said. “And when we implement a transformation plan for our improvement required schools, that plan will include comprehensive technology and training programs for enriching instruction through blended learning.”

The school board is expected to approve the plan to send to the state during the regularly scheduled board meeting Jan. 25, Nelson said.

“Our plans are to have this plan completed, identify a partner and hopefully we won’t even have to have this discussion because the work we do this next semester will lift all of our campuses out of improvement required status,” Nelson said.

Shelly Conlon has covered K-12 education for the Tribune-Herald since July 2016. Prior to the Tribune-Herald, she was the managing editor for the Waxahachie Daily Light, and an intern for the Corpus Christi Caller-Times.

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